Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fatal drug overdoses have exploded in Virginia, and health officials are predicting “the worst year on record by far” for such deaths in the commonwealth.
From January through June, at least 1,086 Virginians died from overdoses of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, prescription opioids and other drugs, the state medical examiner has found. That represented a 39 percent increase from the first half of 2019.
Deaths rose especially during the second quarter of this year (April through June), shortly after Virginia mandated social distancing and other measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The state registered at least 634 drug fatalities during those three months — 67 percent more than during the corresponding period in 2019.
Why the pandemic spurred drug overdoses
Social distancing mandated by the pandemic has made it difficult for people in recovery to meet with a sponsor, counselor or support group such as Narcotics Anonymous. Many treatment centers and recovery programs have closed, cut back or moved services online.
Victor McKenzie Jr., executive director of the Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance of Virginia, said, “For so many people, their recovery is really anchored on social interactions – those peers, other folks who have been through it, whether it’s recovery groups or 12 steps.” He said the pandemic “kind of cut that lifeline off.”
SAARA and other organizations responded by shifting counseling and other assistance online. “However, that doesn’t always replace that human contact,” McKenzie said.
As a result, McKenzie said, people already struggling with addiction faced other issues: “‘Am I going to be able to pay my bills? Am I going to be able to stay in my house? Am I going to be able to afford food?’ All of a sudden, you have these added stressors and triggers that make it really hard for someone to focus on their recovery.”
Resources on drug use and addiction
The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is the state agency that helps people with substance use and addiction. The department has a toll-free telephone number — 877-349-6428 — for crisis counseling during the pandemic. It also connects Virginians to community service boards, which provide local assistance.
The state also has created a website called Curb the Crisis, which offers advice for preventing overdoses and treating drug addiction. The site has information about how to get training to administer naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses.
The Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance of Virginia is an advocacy group for people affected by substance use disorders and addiction. SAARA has recovery groups and information about the “Alive RVA Warm Line” — 833-473-3782.
The McShin Foundation is a nonprofit organization serving individuals and families in their fight against substance use disorders. The group provides a residential program and other support led by people experienced in addiction and recovery.
Narcotics Anonymous has a website listing virtual and in-person meetings in the Richmond area for addicts who wish to pursue and maintain a drug-free lifestyle.